On Empathy

by Joshua Foust on 5/5/2011 · 13 comments

“Afghans almost always cave,” Ann Marlowe writes, “when there is a chance to make a moral stand.” She is referring to the unwillingness of many Afghans to stand up in opposition to not just the Taliban but also to the warlords and thugs who are currently running the country. Marlowe went on to complain that Afghans usually blame us for their problems.

These two sides of Marlowe’s piece, placed at opposite ends (the latter at the beginning, the former at the end), belie how misplaced Marlowe’s outrage is. The U.S. is empowering thugs the Afghans dislike as much as the Taliban; after quoting a former MP from Ghazni saying that people are afraid to speak up against the Taliban because they fear reprisal, Marlowe doesn’t explain what Afghans are supposed to do about it. Yet, rather than blaming American fecklessness for putting in place an alternative to the Taliban that many see as just as bad, she blames the Afghans—elite Afghans, as it were—for not complaining about it more often.

It’s easy for Ann Marlowe to complain about Afghans being unwilling to take a stand. She lives, according to her media friends, in a million-dollar “bohemian Greenwich Village brownstone” in Manhattan. When she’s done with her month of interviewing people in Kabul, she’ll return to Manhattan and continue to write about those cowardly Afghans who won’t risk everything—including their lives—for her ideals.

Afghans have to deal with the long term consequences of their choices; what is Marlowe’s alternative? She hints at one, when she says the U.S. needs to leave and needs to let them “make of their country what they will.” I wouldn’t agree more, but in the meantime, when explaining that most of Afghanistan’s problems are our fault, she’d do well not to blame the Afghans for it.

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– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Theo May 5, 2011 at 10:39 am

Good points Josh. You point at the question: What incentives do the Afghans have to take a stand in the way we want them to?

Turgai May 5, 2011 at 12:10 pm

“What incentives do the Afghans have to take a stand in the way we want them to?”

Theo, maybe the times are gone (or slowly go) when one could throw some sweets and dollars at people to make them parrot the line and discourse one wants to hear. I mean, not everyone is an NGO subcontractor, you know.

anan May 5, 2011 at 10:51 am

Ann’s understanding of Afghans and ANSF has always left much to be desired.

On blaming Afghanistan’s problems on others, sure Afghans do this. Afghans blame Pakistan, Iran, Russia, NATO, US, UN, Japan, foreigners in general, and they do this too much. But a better questions is do Afghans blame foreigners more or less than others. I would argue that Afghans might blame foreigners less than Pakistanis, Russians, and Americans do.

Pakistani paranoia about international conspiracies to destroy Pakistan speak for themselves.

Many Russians also believe in outlandish international plots to harm Russia.

On Americans. Donald Trump blames everything on the Chinese. It is so outlandishly stupid that it is hard to imagine that he believes his own rhetoric. Amy Goodman on the left is just as stupid, blaming America’s problems on trade, investment and business with foreigners. Amy also blames “corporations”, most of which happen to be majority owned by foreigners. Sure Donald Trump and Amy Goodman can be more subtle about overt foreign bating than Afghans, but the “code” is clear to their audience.

Afghans not standing up for themselves? Is that why there are more volunteers for the ANSF than training slots? Is that why there are more applicants for Afghan schools and universities than slots? Is that why so many ANSF and Afghan students are so motivated? Brig. Gen. Abdul Wasea’s 2-205 ANA bde and BG Sherin Shah’s 3-205 ANA bde don’t stand up for Afghanistan? Must be because Ann Morlowe tells us so. Glad Ann Morlowe is there to teach us these things.

If Ann Morlowe would actually listen to Afghans she would understand that Afghans blame the Pakistani Army for the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and extremists. And they blame America, China and the world for backing the Pakistani Army. It isn’t lost on Afghans that the ANA takes higher casualties than the entire fifty some country international coalition combined, or that the ANP takes higher casualties than the ANA. And many Afghans, including educated officers in the ANSF, blame that squarely on the internationals.

There is also a lot of resentment that internationals refused to surge ANSF capacity in any major way until December, 2009. Many Afghans think NATO, ISAF, UN did this on purpose to satisfy the Pakistani Army and Taliban.

Ann Marlowe must have noticed how Afghans support and admire the ANA more than any other Afghan institution. Why is this? Maybe because Afghans see the ANA as their best hope against the Taliban, organized crime, ordinary crime, nominally pro GIRoA warlords, corrupt civilian GIRoA officials, sectarian and regional parties, and internationals. Apparently supporting the ANA isn’t standing up for Afghanistan, since Ann Morlowe tells us so.

Ann Morlowe also quotes a sectarian Pashun university student at Kabul and makes too much of that anecdote. As if Afghan universities have less fools attending them than American universities. [It is probably a good bet that the Ann Morlowe’s student also believes that 65% of all Afghans are Pashtuns, that Hazaras are rafidas, Tajiks are Indian Hindu jewish Mossad stooges, that Uzbeks report to Turks and other associated nonsense.]

E2 May 10, 2011 at 9:58 am

“Afghans blame Pakistan, Iran, Russia, NATO, US, UN, Japan, foreigners in general…”

I’m curious, what negative things have you heard local Afghans specifically saying about the Japanese? I was under the impression they were one of the only foreign governments that the Afghans actually liked due to their lack of military presence here and their focus on reconstruction projects.

anan May 10, 2011 at 11:04 am

Not Japan per say. But there is a lot of criticism of “foreigners” as a whole and NGOs and reconstruction projects. Foreigners and NGOs are often seen to lie and not fulfill all their promises. NGOs and international aid providers often do not coordinate their projects appropriately with all the local stakeholders, GIRoA and other internationals. Many reconstruction projects are not sustainable and distort the local economy by raising property prices, rents, wages, and materials costs.

Japan is the largest provider of foreign aid to Afghanistan after the US. Japan also pays all the salaries for the MoI [ANP] and plays a large role in MoI capacity building and training.

Perhaps part of the problem is that Afghans expect too much of foreigners and NGOs. In my view the ANSF should get their own PRTs that embed with the local governors and subgovernors. All international and NGO aid should be coordinated through them. If the Governors and subgovernors are good enough, then the ANSF PRTs should be disbanded. Internationals should serve as embedded advisors for the governors, subgoverners and ANSF PRTs. Places with dysfunctional GIRoA and ANSF maybe shouldn’t get much in the way of reconstruction.

Briandot May 5, 2011 at 11:11 am

Her attitude may be inappropriate, but her observations (or expectations) are not. I am not one to normally defend Ann Marlowe, but frankly, to some extent she’s right this time. Current Afghan societal order is rather far from the concept of western democracy, despite the official state structure, and the idea of “an Islamic emirate” is far more universally relatable than the complicated, federal, bicameral, presidential system with officials acting as full representatives of the central state (except not really. However as you say in your last sentence, it *is* our fault, for foolishly trying to screw together that system and drop it in place. Still, expecting leaders to lead, police to do policing, etc. is not unreasonable, even in difficult times.

anan May 5, 2011 at 3:36 pm

“Current Afghan societal order is rather far from the concept of western democracy”

What is “the concept of western democracy”? I genuinely don’t know.

Why can’t “an Islamic emirate” and a modern democracy be the same thing? Seems semantics whether to call something an Islamic democracy or a democracy customized for Afghan traditions or an islamic emirate where the people influence leader selection.

Briandot . . . why do you think most Afghans don’t want a say in the selection of their government. Are Afghans so different from Iranians, Pakistanis, Indians, Azerbaijanis, Indonesians, Malays and Iraqis? I would make the case that traditional Afghan Shuras are a type of democracy where the Afghan people are able to influence government leaders and local/national policy.

Afghans greatly influenced the writing of their own constitution 2001-2004 and the constitution enjoyed significant popularity and legitimacy back then.

You are right that Afghan leaders should lead and that it isn’t the internal community’s fault when they don’t.

“What incentives do the Afghans have to take a stand in the way we want them to” Its much worse than that. Internationals don’t have any clear idea what they want Afghans to do and are deeply divided among themselves.

Josh, the warlords will have a role in any Afghan government. The only way to deny them that role was force and dead civilians, which is why Karzai hasn’t generally chosen that route.

If internationals want to weaken the warlords the only way to do so is by strengthening nonsectarian nonpartisan GIRoA and ANSF institutions. As the GIRoA’s capacity grows, it will have the option of reducing the influence of warlords. The real way the international community has enabled warlords is the “weak ANSF” strategy pre December, 2009.

Briandot May 5, 2011 at 5:17 pm

We’re venturing off topic here into political theory, and I believe you are constructing a strawman with your attempted comparison to Pakistanis/Indians/Azerbaijanis/etc, but in short, the Western conception of democracy is more than elections — it comprises a system of political discourse, egalitarian values, particular freedoms, and a power relationship tilted toward the people rather than the state. But the connotation of the word “democracy” in many places is some strange (to us) idea of a hedonistic anti-religious mess. While elected, representative government is something broadly shared/admired, something like, say, freedom of religion, speech, etc. would be seen as unacceptable.

For example, Iran is often labeled a pseudo-democracy; it has the basic mechanics of democracy — an elected legislature, etc. — but the ability to criticize the government is proscribed, and real power is held by a body that is not popularly elected.

Shuras (or perhaps more accurately jirgas) in Afghanistan and elsewhere are indeed a form of democracy. I would also say that they do not function in the way they have traditionally; the West may have poisoned that well though, by trying to “help”. As it is now, the government in Afghanistan is designed very nearly to not work at all.

M Shannon May 5, 2011 at 10:58 pm

The vast majority of people in all countries prefer to do nothing but watch and keep their heads down. Initiative especially when it involves physical risk is rare and often limited to young men with nothing to lose.

We shouldn’t blame the Afghans but at the same time we should realize that the morale of the Taliban is considerably higher than our Afghans and that this is the major factor causing this war to drag on despite the huge disparity in resources.

anan May 6, 2011 at 12:55 am

Would phrase it differently. Would say that the actual fighters in the Taliban, ANA, NDS and ISAF have high morale. The older folks on all sides have lower morale.

“The vast majority of people in all countries prefer to do nothing but watch and keep their heads down. Initiative especially when it involves physical risk is rare and often limited to young men with nothing to lose.” Bingo.

Briandot, thanks for the explanation. You mean rule of law and personal freedom rather than democracy. I don’t think the UN and ISAF have tried to impose personal freedom and mostly this has been correct.

Regarding the GIRoA and ANSF being unable to function, how many global governments are well designed? I would argue that Karzai has substantial capabilities concentrated in his office. He can make a major positive difference with the powers he has right now.

All senior officer appointments and transfers in the ANA [not sure about the NDS] go through the President’s palace. The ANA and NDS will fight and die under his leadership if Karzai chooses to lead them.

There are also competent civilian ministries, competent governors and competent sub-governors in Afghanistan who want to serve their country.

Faisal May 8, 2011 at 1:33 pm

I would agree with the original premise that Afghans have a reason to complain. The ALP issue (that is not supported by either NDS/ANP/ANA) is such an example. Sure it gives the ISAF forces breathing room, but what it does is it takes away legitimacy from the ANSF. However the conspiracy theories are rather insane. As an example most of the Taliban in the Western region are home grown. Shindand or Farah are not very closely linked with the Taliban from Pakistan. Rather they are local pashtun populations that are fighting their own country men. In that case it is rather insane to blame Pakistan or Iran (in the case of Farah and Nimroz) for the fighting.

bathing ape May 9, 2011 at 3:15 am

The Bible tells us in ONLY TWO Timothy 1: 7 “For God hath not given people the spirit of concern, but of power, in addition to of love, and of your sound mind. “When most people allow fear, which is just not from God, to take control people, we stress. But, God didn’t give us the heart of fear therefore FEAR is false. When you feel fear starting that will creep in, remember to be able to TRUST JESUS. Trust that He is known for a purpose for your life and that if you’re not happy with what you happen to be presently doing, then having it . following HIS purpose. Trust that making changes shall be difficult and at occasions, frustrating, but always be mindful you will be doing God’s work. Trust that everyone won’t see the vision a person see, but be mindful that God has a calling to suit your needs and you must accomplish that calling. Here’s an action point: Write the two FEAR = False Evidence Appearing Real and A COUPLE OF Timothy 1: 7 with two different pieces connected with paper.

Daud Khan May 9, 2011 at 8:45 pm

u take a good point,

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